Here Comes the Slack Backlash

The chat platform has long been a media darling, but it’s getting so popular that people are starting to complain about it.  

Slackbot, the automated assistant from the popular group-chat platform Slack (Slack)

The Slack backlash, which began last year and seems to be intensifying, was perhaps always inevitable.

Slack, a group-chat platform designed for business communications, has been a media darling for several years now. It’s valued at some $4 billion, an astounding sum, even for Silicon Valley. And, full-disclosure, I’m squarely among the throng of reporters who have praised Slack in my work. Here at The Atlantic, we started using Slack in 2014; just on the tech team, at first, before expanding it across the newsroom. Back then, Slack had about 100,000 daily users. Today, it has nearly 3 million.

It is not an exaggeration to say, as I often have, that Slack has been transformative for the way I work. I love that it enables me to ignore email (up to a point) and focus just on reporting, writing, and communicating with colleagues. I love it as a place for brainstorming story ideas. I love that I can go for a stroll outside in the afternoon and still be connected to the office.

But Slack is not for everyone. Some people dislike the platform because it’s conceptually like an old-school IRC without being an open protocol. Others have complained that Slack isn’t actually an email-killer, as so many have claimed, but just another thing to keep up with on top of email. (The Slack detox, in the grand tradition of people’s fraught relationships with the digital tools they use most, is officially A Thing.)

Dave Teare, the founder of the tech firm AgileBits, wrote a blog post on Tuesday about his decision to swap out Slack for Basecamp, another popular project-management tool. For Teare, Slack was having a negative impact on workplace culture—and, on a personal level, it was stressing him out.

“[W]e had so many channels and direct messages and group chats. It multiplexed my brain and left me in a constant state of anxiety, feeling that I needed to always be on guard,” he wrote. “And I had to read everything. I felt that I had no choice as often decisions would be made in Slack that I needed to know. And in other ways it was simply an addiction that needed to be fed.” Then, when a colleague asked him if something was up—noting that Teare seemed “much more angry” lately, things came to a head.

This made me realize that our use of Slack was even more destructive than I had realized. The time pressures forced me to be curt and I avoided taking the time to be playful. Worse, since I was in a constant state of heighten[ed] anxiety, I often wouldn’t feel like being playful to begin with.

I had always evaluated Slack from the point of view of “Does it make me more productive?” and “Does it help my team ship a better product?”. I had never considered the more important question “Does Slack make me look and feel like a dick?”

Slack, for its part, has tried to mitigate against the kind of anxiety Teare and others have described. People can decide how many separate groups to participate in, or how robust their notification settings are. Slack also created a do-not-disturb feature, so that after-hours messages can be sent—but won’t pop up on someone’s phone until they choose. Weirdly, this makes the experience of “checking Slack” more like email than anything else. Maybe that’s fitting: Many of the problems people attribute to Slack—that it naturally encourages round-the-clock attention to work, that it prompts people to be terse—are merely extensions of email culture. Which is another reason why the popularity of Slack and its peers is doomed, says Rebecca Greenfield, the Bloomberg reporter: “As it did with e-mail, though, our love of group chat will eventually morph into loathing.”

That may be true, culturally speaking, but individual relationships with technology are often more of a reflection of the anxieties and expectations a person brings to the technology—and not the other way around. The widespread obsession with reaching inbox zero, the late email pioneer Raymond Tomlinson once told me, is obviously a “human feature,” not a technological one. “Email does not produce guilt,” he said.

In my mind, Slack’s true cultural downfall won’t come from the way it’s bleeding into the love-hate-but-mostly-hate space that email occupies, but from the first major hacking incident. Most professionals, by now, understand that it isn’t prudent to put anything in an email that you’d be horrified to see splashed across the front page of The New York Times. (People may not always follow this rule, but that’s another story.)

But the culture of Slack in many workplaces is still relaxed, playful, and collegial—part-watercooler, part-business meeting. That’s likely to change in the event of a substantial leak of otherwise private Slack conversations. (Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s CEO, assured me his team is doing everything in its power to make sure Slack is never hacked. “We think about it all the time,” he told me when we last spoke, in November.) Part of the reason email stopped seeming fun is because the novelty wore off; and that’s because professional standards sucked the fun out of it. Slack may always have custom emoji, but if people stop using the platform for some degree of silliness and candor, it’s likely to lose much of its charm.